By Tony Carlson
Everyone knew him as Hardcore.
It’s a nickname that suits the adventurous spirit of Dylan Cunningham who made the most of his six years at Rosseau Lake College, jumping into each new challenge with both feet – sometimes literally.
And it still fits the man who continues to search for new opportunities to test himself and to live up to a mantra he learned at RLC – “Best of Self”.
Now a heli-skiing and back-country guide in the Rockies from his base in Canmore, AB, Dylan cut a wide swath through RLC both academically and in the demanding outdoor endeavours the school is known for.
He was, for instance, the first RLC student to complete the Gold level of the gruelling Canadian Ski Marathon Coureurs des Bois, at 160-km over two days, the longest and oldest Nordic ski event on the continent.
Since graduating in 2007, Dylan has continued to make a mark for himself. For example he achieved something that only two other mortals have ever done: ski the legendary north face of Mount Robson.
It’s a steep 800-metre face, measured at a sustained 52 degrees. Compare that to the toughest runs at most ski hills around the world which typically do not exceed 45 degrees for brief distances.
“It was intense, but not terrifying,” he says, drawing a line that perhaps only an experienced extreme skier can truly understand. “But fear is part of the experience, as long as it is controllable.”
The descent was a result of years dedicated to adventuring in the mountains after extensive training. “Skiing something of that calibre had long been a dream and a process. I had self doubts, but I had felt prepared and comfortable both with the skiing and the mental process.”
In the end, the descent was not so much an achievement but a deeply valued experience for Dylan. “What made it special was getting to rise up against a daunting challenge and the memories of being high up on the mountain overlooking the rest of the Rocky Mountains with the two friends who were with me on the climb to the summit.”
He has no hard plans to tackle other such icons, saying that while it is accurate to describe him as an extreme skier, it is not what defines him.
“I am more drawn to the inter- and intrapersonal experiences I have in my mountain environment. As a consequence, I try to be open to recognizing and seizing opportunities as they arise.”
One such opportunity is his work with Guardians of the Ice, a fledgling project that draws on the expertise of artists and scientists to raise awareness of how the swiftly melting Columbia Ice Field is a bellwether for the negative effects of climate change.
Dylan gives RLC a great deal of credit for the choices he has made.
He came to RLC at age 11, having no real sense of what he was getting into even though the family had a cottage on Lake Rosseau.
“I stayed for a weekend the year before enrolling to try it out. I thought it was awesome then and still did six years later when I graduated. Even today, I think it is one of the best things that ever happened in my life.”
Though he spent Grade 8 in the Bricks, he was a Clarkson House fixture every other year, including House Captain in Grade 11 and Head Prefect the next year. He starred at Varsity soccer, whitewater paddling and led the Nordic ski team in his senior years. But he also hit the books to earn a place on the Excellent Standing List through his senior years.
Dylan is the first to admit he was no angel – “I was as much of a train wreck as any teenager.“ – but in everything he did, he lived up to his nickname.
Some of his classmates will remember, for instance, the incident of the bicycle and the bus. For some reason known only to teenaged boys, there came a day when it was decided to break a bicycle by tossing it off the roof of an old school bus parked in the back field. Dylan committed fully to the plan, so hardcore in fact that somehow his pants got caught in the bike’s pedals and he fell down from the roof himself, landing on top of the bike.
He was also part of the memorable March Break class trip to Mount Kenya where the students not only climbed to the peak, they also broke ground for a new water cistern and experienced a safari in the Great Rift valley.
“Every one of us on that trip got deathly ill. It was a spiritual journey,” he says, with an enigmatic smile.
Dylan is still amazed at the commitment of the RLC faculty and staff who armed him with skills and attitudes that fuel his success today.
“The three biggest themes I took from RLC are still very important to me: love of outdoors; the adventurous spirit in everything we did; and most important how engaged and multi-talented all the staff were.”
He is reluctant to single out any staff for guiding him through his formative years. “The amount of energy from everyone that went into helping students be able to do something positive with our lives was on a whole different level.”
When pressed, however, he cites a few in particular for keeping him on track: Angus Murray and Peggy Foster who led the outdoor program, Kary Hepworth who coached the Nordic team and her husband Scott who went beyond being Dylan’s formal mentor to become a close friend. He also remembers Kim Postma for her pragmatism and compassion in looking out for students.
“The level of care they showed me was incredible. It went way beyond teaching, coaching or mentoring and became almost familial.”
Little wonder Dylan is still a hardcore fan of RLC.
“It’s an amazing little ecosystem – a community that facilitates people to discover, embrace and live out ‘best of self’ in a real way, expressing themselves and contributing to the world in the best possible ways.”